Angels two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani has been hit with the news that he has a torn UCL in his pitching elbow and won't take the mound again in 2023. It's not yet certain how severe the tear is or whether he'll need to undergo Tommy John surgery for a second time. What is known, however, is that it's an ill-timed injury in light of Ohtani's pending free agency. It also raises questions about his future as a two-way player.
To be sure, Ohtani is almost certainly committed to returning to the mound even if his current injury results in a second reconstructive surgery. Ohtani has always exercised a great deal of autonomy over his usage as a pitcher, and given the leverage he'll have on the free-agent market that's going to continue to be the case. Ohtani may well have something close to the final say when it comes to his future as a pitcher. The final final say, however, may belong to his body.
Regardless of who his next employer is and how much they pay for the privilege of employing the best and most popular baseball player in the world, his pitching future is at least somewhat uncertain at this juncture. With that in mind, let's have an entirely speculative look at how that pitching future may play out.
Option 1: Nothing changes
There's no reading his mind, of course, but it's not a stretch to assume that he wants to remain a regular member of a major-league rotation. If he winds up requiring Tommy John surgery, then that won't happen in 2024, but his next contract will no doubt afford thinking and planning that stretches far into the future.
Let's clarify this path a bit. Calling Ohtani a regular member of the Angels rotation is accurate but not quite in the standard sense of things. In what will be his six seasons with the Angels, he's managed a qualifying number of innings on the mound only once – last year with 166, and that's just barely over the bar. As well, of Ohtani's 86 career starts on the mound, 33 have come on five-days' rest and 52 have come on six or more days of rest. The only exception is in April of this year when he pitched on three days of rest after his originally scheduled start in Boston was cut short after 31 pitches because of rain.
The reality is that this understandably conservative usage strategy hasn't yielded optimal health and durability for him. Maybe Ohtani's competitive drive makes him want to continue taking the mound as often as possible, but there's cause to worry that this isn't a viable path for him moving forward.
Option 2: He remains a starter but with a more limited workload
In light of his elbow history, perhaps an even more limited schedule as a starting pitcher is in order. As noted, more than half of his MLB starts have come on six or more days of rest. Perhaps that figure is pushed back further toward eight, nine, 10 days of regular rest. Presumably, that would limit the fatigue that bedeviled him this year leading up to the discovery of his elbow injury. Perhaps that would allow him to avoid another arm malady in the future. We're of course dealing with unknowns because, as we all know, there's never been another one like Ohtani. Stretching his starter schedule out, however, creates some logistical challenges when it comes to structuring the rest of the rotation. It's already a bit of a complication since Ohtani always starts on extra rest, and that's a consideration for his next team. There's also, of course, no guarantee that pitching less often will afford better arm health for Ohtani.
Option 3: He becomes a closer
The John Smoltz tack – ace starter becomes ace high-leverage reliever – is perhaps the most compelling option. No doubt, Ohtani, if healthy, would thrive in such a role. He has lights-out stuff and a record of high-level performance as a starter. Let that stuff play up in a bullpen role and, yes, he's almost certainly a force. Again, though, the heart of the matter is whether this would allow him to stay healthy. Relievers, particularly those with big fastballs, get hurt, too, and it's fair to wonder whether Ohtani – freed of the need to moderate his effort level in the name of pitching deeper into the game – would benefit from such a switch. Perhaps he would, but it's far from certain.
We got a taste of Closer Ohtani in the World Baseball Classic:
Option 4: He becomes an opener
The most conservative approach is probably the least likely. Under this unconventional scenario, Ohtani would become an opener – i.e., a pitcher that faces the first few batters of the game before giving way to a scheduled bulk reliever. This would in essence give Ohtani the lighter workload of a reliever (again, though, heed the effort-level caveat just above) while also giving him the regular and predictable turns of a starter. It's not a reach to assume Ohtani would not be immediately favorable to such a path forward, but it's at least a theoretical consideration. Also, it's possible the disappointment of again dealing with a serious elbow injury changes Ohtani's outlook when it comes to his pitching future.
Option 5: He stops pitching
Much of this will be informed by how severe Ohtani's UCL tear turns out to be and whether it requires surgery that would prevent him from pitching at all in 2024. Even so, Ohtani's health history makes his future on the mound a point of discussion between the player and his winter suitors. That means it probably becomes a point of negotiation, as well.
It's hard to imagine that Ohtani's days as a pitcher are at an end – perish such a thought – but it's not hard to imagine that his future on the mound will look different from his past. Like all things else Ohtani, the coming offseason will provide some clarity.